Poetry as a Way of Trying to Understand What Happens to Me and Inside Me

My favourite poet, if not the first living poet that moved my soul somehow was Thom Gunn. He was an English, “leather boy”, who moved to California in the 60ties and lived the rest of his life there. He died, maybe of an accidental drug overdose, in 2004. My title is really a quote from him:

‘ Writing poetry has in fact become a certain stage in my coping with the world, or in the way I try to understand what happens to me and inside me. Perhaps I could say that my poetry is an attempt to grasp, with grasp meaning both to take hold of in a first bid at possession, and also to understand. ” (Thom Gunn, “My Life Up To Now” in The Occasions of Poetry, 1982.)

Beau Williams, who hosts The Glasshouse Poets “open mic” sessions in Galway, said one night (I paraphrase): Do all come back again …we want to see you…hear you…your words are such a precious part of you: that moved me; it made me think of just how important and therapeutic, in the sense of healing, that the experience of sharing a poem with other people, other poets, can be. As Thom Gunn puts it, it’s “a stage in my coping with the world”, the poet is “trying to understand what happens…inside me”. And what we truly know about ourselves is that which we have the courage to share with others.

So sadly we shall miss Beau and his sessions in Galway but look forward to starting up again sometime soon I hope. In the meantime I send him good wishes, stay well Beau till next time. The collected thoughts here are a little contribution to keep us all together in someway and maybe to say thank you.

Some of us go jogging, cycling, swimming or kayaking. Some regard their chosen pleasure as uplifting, mind expanding or even spiritual. I remember an author writing about training for an Artic kayaking adventure: he was training on Lake Windermere in Cumbria, UK. Paddling length after length of the lake to get fit, steady strokes, losing himself in the oneness he felt with his kayak and even with the Lake itself, so it became a meditative experience: the body and mind at one with the activity and environment (you might want to say with the planet). Most Rock climbers I’ve ever met would know this experience too.

I call this experience “spiritual”. I do not mean “religious” but if you are in some way religious you might think it was that too. I also think of it as a “practice”, in the same way we talk of transcendental meditation or Yoga being a practice.  And this is not just because we do it over and over with a certain regularity but because it is, for the person doing it, an important ritual; it has a significance of some kind above and beyond trying to be “good at it ” or “getting it right”, even if our practice is imperfect or poorly executed today it still counts that we did it, that we kept it up so that it made our day or week more grounded, more meaningful or yes, more spiritual.

I want to say that poetry counts as a spiritual practice too partly because of all the reasons that Thom Gunn speaks of above. But also because the writing of poetry as a creative activity involves the deepest parts of our spirit or soul. The same is true of course of all artistic activity, music, painting or acting, for example. Looking here at poetry though, not only are we trying to “grasp” and “take hold” of something, to quote Gunn again, but the activity alters slightly our usual sense of consciousness, of how we think about things. My friend, Matt Segal, (see his blog: Footnotes to Platoin my blog roll) talking here about spirituality, but I think one can apply his comments to poetic experience quite well too, he puts it this way:

“I meant those sorts of…..experiences we sometimes have when we consider not just the beauty of the environment around us, but the strange fact of our own awareness of that beauty. So in other words, we are taking in what is all around us, as well as the fact that we as conscious minds are there to take it in. We perceive the objective, and perceive that we are conceiving of it from a subjective perspective. Something recursive like that… This sort of “doubling up” tends to evoke a feeling I’d want to call “spiritual.” (Matthew Segal: quoted in “Towards a Definition of Spirituality and Pentecost” in my blog: hugofgaia.com)

There is also in the exercise of writing poetry something else that makes it spiritual too. It is the experience that somehow at some point something emerges that wasn’t quite present before you began. You can compare this with “emergent properties” in philosophy or science and I quote the wikki definition:

“In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own. These properties or behaviors emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole.”

I like to call this something much simpler: inspiration. Some call it “the muse” but the effect, the feeling, is that you have said something, written something, you didn’t know before and it seems like it came from somewhere else, from some other place than where you are sitting. That idea of something from outside us changing us by an increased awareness and expression is fundamental to what I think of as spiritual. And whenever we decide to sit and write we invite that in:  I described this to my friend and poet Lorna Shaughnessy once in a poem as being on “Holy Ground”. She was in Achill Island writing and she sent me a thank you text for helping her get on task: this was my disclaimer!

For Lorna on Achill Island

“Take off your sandals for you stand on Holy Ground”
(The voice from the burning bush Exodus chap 3.)

You text me to say
the phone call helped
have started writing in the night
a lonely off-shore island
a turf fire and the wind outside
your soft tap of fingers on the keys
how difficult it is to go away
to be alone with only
the sea at the door
imagining you sitting there
your back straight
one hand on a steady mug of tea

I don’t have psychic powers
it’s just the sky that’s full of fire
and a voice in the air
you suddenly found
that told you
you stand on Holy Ground

2 thoughts on “Poetry as a Way of Trying to Understand What Happens to Me and Inside Me

  1. Tony, do you think of reading poetry as a spiritual practice, too? I think it can be so when one gets deeply immersed in a poem—when reading the poem itself opens up something deep inside of you, something you suddenly know was probably there all along but was never properly recognised or put into your own words or ‘practice’ as you put it. I think of Wordsworth’s deeply spiritual relationship to nature as having awakened in me a kind of spirituality I had not previously acknowledged, for instance. So that suddenly the reader joins in the writer in a kind of transcendent experience. I believe a very fine poet can bring about this miracle.


  2. Hi Marcia
    Thank you so much for your comment…yes I totally agree! And I suppose there has to be in Art a “reciprocity”; even from the writer’s point of view the reader’s experience is an essential presumption. I was once angry when told by a pompous older person: “Well if you are not going to publish what’s the point in doing it?” Can we be “some mute inglorious Milton”? I think the “imagination” has the answer: we always imagine talking to another person even when we are talking to ourself; hence the reader imagines the reciprocal encounter which was always intended.
    If you want to unpick/unpack this quick response it would be joyous to hear you.


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